Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Binary Designers? (2)

The graphic image above is from a self-promotion identity design and portfolio by Caryn Nydam from Modesto, California. This week, Caryn will be a 2009 Dordt College art major graduate with both fine art and graphic design emphases.

Earlier last month, I posted Binary Designers? in which I received an important suggestion from a Dordt graduate who's practicing graphic design. So, I'm re-posting it in more of its entirety in order to give some context. The following excerpt is from a larger paper titled Creational Graphic Design … my intent with a more current post will allow those who want to comment a chance to do so.

As a side, this paper will be presented at the CIVA 2009 Biennial Conference this summer at Bethel University, Saint Paul, Minnesota. The excerpt reads:

Binary Designers?
At Dordt College students interested in graphic design are art majors with a graphic design emphasis. That means, that in addition to taking four dedicated graphic design courses, students also take some required studio fine art courses, a business marketing course, as well as other studio art and art history electives along with a rigorous liberal arts core curriculum. Often times, a graphic design student will say, “I like graphic design, but what I really like is studio art (painting, drawing, photography, ceramics, or sculpture) — fine art allows me to be self-expressive.” When students become juniors and seniors I offer them an individual study in order to develop their portfolios. Together, we begin the process of systematic exploration and review their body of work from all of their studio classes and determine where their work is strong and what areas need improvement. Some students seem to apologize and ask me “Can I include fine art with graphic design in my portfolio?” “Are clients interested?” “Some are,” I respond and further add that although art and design are different they are related. The choice between the two is actually a false dilemma because there is so much common ground.

[I enjoy seeing students who put as much passion into their graphic design work as they do their fine art work.]

Why do students seem to have the attitude of the two art sub-cultures? Why this tension? The perception of fine art as more noble than design (graphic design), is a Romantic notion going back to the Renaissance, a notion that has found it’s way to today’s North American college campuses—Christian colleges included. Does this attitude come from the academic liberal arts tradition? Where do the lines of art and design cross? Again, Calvin Seerveld starts to provide an answer with his working definition of art: “a well-crafted artifact or act distinguished by an imaginative quality whose nature is to allude to more meaning than what is visible/audible/written/sensed….”

How does Seerveld’s art definition work in design? Actually, graphic design, web design, interactive design can be considered artifacts or acts of communication distinguished by an imaginative quality that is visible/audible/written/sensed. The question is, “How does the nature of design allude to more meaning than what meets the senses?”

This question considers that a common area of art and design is the nuance, mood, and meaning of a thing, which suggests intellect and self-expression—the presence of the designer or artist expressed in the artifact. Internationally acclaimed designer, Rick Valicenti, (Chicago), discusses his work this way: “… my personal work, which happens right alongside my professional work, helps to inform all of my commissions. Hence, all the work of this office begins to reveal a real human presence, which is less formulaic, is more like fine art and is expressive. Design, art, self-expression, my being, and my self-perception determine my behavior. If I can use my artifacts, the things that I make, as evidence of who I am and realizing that, my artifacts can actually reflect my sense of joy, curiosity, and optimism, this can be authentic and effective communication on behalf of a client.” Valicenti further adds something that should be of great interest for art and design students:

Your presence can’t help but be reflected in your work, for instance. If we limit our thought then the experiences we have are limited as a result. If we enter design with interest, odds are what comes out of that process of making and thinking about design will be interesting. If we enter design with greed, what’s going to come out is greed. If we enter with disrespect, disrespect comes out and the same can be true if we enter a process with respect—then the artifact is respectful. If we enter with an artful spirit, then what comes out is something quite artful and imaginative. But sadly, if we enter the design process with formula, what might come out is formula and that’s not a good thing especially when we can put it on press and millions of copies get done; or put it onto the web and anyone who wants can go there. And if they encounter formula disguised as communication—I should say, communication contaminated with formula—it’s not a good thing to send any impersonal messages from one person to another anywhere in the world.

I believe that the next destination for design to aspire to be is one that transcends style—where communication really does reach out. Perhaps with design being so much in service to business and so much of a commodified practice, in many respects it has lost sight of a kind of design that really does communicate, that really does behave in compelling fashion. In order to do that the missing ingredient might just be the presence of the communicator in the act of communication …
Most art students feel an affinity with Valicenti’s expressionistic/emotional approach because most art education programs (Christian and non-Christian) promote self-expression. By contrast, other designers, such as the modernist Bauhaus teacher, Josef Albers, have questioned this self-expressive approach to design as self-indulgent. According to Eric Gibson, “Albers distrusted expressionism, believing it to be egocentric and geared mostly toward effects rather than insight.”

However, while Albers makes a good point, I appreciate Valicenti’s emotive approach because I know that his body of work is filled with creative and playful insight. Valicenti’s work is also indicative of serving a public through a rigorous, disciplined, and self-critical design process that in my view should be a strong component of any art and design training.

It is possible that graphic design, like art, can express, as Nicholas Wolterstroff says, “the ultimate concerns (in case they have them) of their makers.” and I believe this is what Valicenti is saying, as well. With this in mind, perhaps it is beneficial to compare the perspectives of Valicenti’s emotion and Albers’s judgment with the strong emotional content of the biblical Psalms. This is what John Calvin wrote about emotional content in the preface to his 1557 Commentary on the Book of Psalms:
I have been accustomed to call this book, I think not inappropriately, “An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul;” for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn to the life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated. … It is by perusing these inspired compositions, that men will be most effectually awakened to a sense of their maladies, and, at the same time, instructed in seeking remedies for their cure. In a word, whatever may serve to encourage us when we are about to pray to God, is taught us in this book.…


  1. My two cents...

    I believe that the primary reason for this "binary" relationship has to do with the fact that graphic design is immersed in the world of commerce, whereas fine arts is (probably erroneously) viewed as being "above" the marketplace. This distinction is also present in other art forms: film and literature, for example. The artist who creates in a commercial environment is labeled a "hack," and it is assumed that his or her artistic vision is automatically compromised by the need to pander to the "masses." On the flip side, the artist who is not being paid (or not being paid well) for his or her work is regarded as having more integrity: his or her vision is not compromised by the need to appeal to a wide audience.

    An examination of this "binary" attitude in the arts could take many different directions, but it seems to me that sooner or later we must deal with this concept that art is corrupted by the marketplace. Is it true?

    It's certainly true that artists working in a commercial environment may be compelled to compromise their vision based on what the client or investor wants. However, the push and pull between an artist's vision and an audience's needs is often a fruitful one. For instance, although some commercial art is shallow, it is rarely indulgent--a common problem in the world of "fine art."

    Also, it strikes me that some of the most enduring works of art from earlier ages could be labeled "commercial art." In the Renaissance and later, great works of art were created for rich patrons or for the Church, who were to a certain extent able to dictate the final product--and yet we rarely accuse the Dutch masters or Michelangelo of being "hacks" who were simply working for a paycheck.

  2. Thanks Andrew, for your helpful insights. I appreciate your approach to discussing the post. When I did the piece I felt that the article could be talked about from several different points of view – depending on one's experiences. I’ve also received interesting comments via e-mail and those will become the basis for a new post in the near future … that way, those comments can remain anonymous. So, keep on following our blog.

  3. Professor, I think this post is successful in doing what you'd hoped it would. I find several points that I could/would like to comment on.

    The first, and the one that I'd originally commented on, is the question of whether or not to include fine art pieces in one's graphic design portfolio. In my experience, I think a portfolio should reflect as closely as possible the job in which one is applying for. As a junior graphic designer entering the field, I think it's primarily important to show the interviewer that you can implement design skills in the appropriate medium, that being the computer. While I'm sure there are several interviewers who appreciate seeing a personal painting or drawing, I think most would find it extraneous to the task at hand, and even distracting.
    To be honest, and to possibly stray too far into the 'design as craft' spectrum, if I were looking to hire a plumber, I wouldn't be interested in whether or not he/she was an electrician on the side, unless of course my scope of work could one day include an electrician... Again, being careful to have your portfolio reflect the job in which you're applying.

    My graphic design career thus far has not included work that I consider to be commercial. In fact, I've been lucky enough to work in an environment where my junior designer status has not limited my creative freedom. If anything, it's my inability to adapt and respond to the project at hand that limits my creative expression and what I'll call "artistic satisfaction".

    I do believe that this topic is a personal one, and one that grows and changes the longer a person is in the field. To re-quote Valicenti, "Your presence can’t help but be reflected in your work."

    No matter what that work is (design, 3D, painting, film), it's still yours and whether you like it or not, it reflects your personal, emotional response to your surroundings.


Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the editor has approved them.